Walking in a stranger's shoes requires patience and openness, and sometimes it requires you to be a woman. Society for the Performing Arts will explore this concept during "Stranger in a Strange Land" with photographer Jodi Cobb at 8 p.m. on October 15 at Jones Hall. She'll walk the audience through the work she's performed and issues she's covered including visual presentations and personal stories.
Known for breaking through barriers and going undercover to reveal hidden societies, Cobb has brought to light some of the first images ever published from these realms—fascinating glimpses into Japan’s secret Geisha culture and the cloistered lives of Saudi Arabian women. She has also covered lighter topics, capturing the singular experience of being a twin and exploring what is considered beautiful around the world.
"It’s a journey story. It’s my 35-plus years at National Geographic as the only woman staff field photographer in its history," she said.
Cobb says her journey has taken her to all stretches of the globe. She grew up in Iran in a desert island with the world's largest oil refinery at its time, and came back to the United States to be a rock and roll photographer. She chronicled some of the greatest music acts including Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Grace Slick. Eventually, she studied journalism and photography and got picked up at National Geographic. Breaking through as the only female staff field photographer was tough but rewarding.
"It really was a gentleman’s club with suits and ties and formal attire. The photographers were these swashbuckling Indiana Jones macho characters who did amazing things. I’m not denigrating them. They found the Titanic and shot bullets in mid flight. They did amazing things. I was proud to be among them, but it was a fight for equality. I had to prove myself every day. I had to prove I could do what they did and what they couldn’t do," she said.
Cobb worked tirelessly to do all the things her male counterparts were doing, but she found a unique niche in photographing women's issues. Simply put, she could go places the men couldn't go, and she could gain the trust of people the men didn't have access to.
"They couldn’t go into these hidden worlds of women. These women’s lives were secret and behind closed doors and impossible to photograph. Like the women of Saudi Arabia," she said. "When I went to photo the women, there were no journalist visas given out, so I had to get permission from the King. Then, I had to get the permission of every single woman, and they would never show their faces to men. That was groundbreaking."
Cobb will speak of other job assignments she's pursued over the years, but her biggest story and the one she's most proud of is the coverage she provided on human trafficking.
"It took me to 12 countries and into the heart of darkness. It got the biggest response in the history of National Geographic. The story was my idea. I didn’t think they would do it because it was so far removed from what they did, but they approved it. I was thrown into this underground tragic world of people being bought and sold against their will and being held captive: Child labor and sex trafficking, organ trafficking, illegal adoption trade, agricultural workers, industrial workers," she said.
"It was the first time the story had been done in a global way. There had been stories on child labor in India or the occasional sex trafficking story in the U.S., but no one had done the global look at it. It is a global criminal investigation. We were able to show it in many places of the world and its many manifestations," Cobb added.
From spending so much time covering heavy issues, she likes to take time to find serene topics to photograph. Currently, she is working on capturing the canals of Venice and the reflections on the water as an art form. She speaks about this in her presentation, and she hopes to inspire others to find their inner calling and follow it.
"I end the program with hope. Because all the stories and projects took a big toll on me, at the end I talk about the photos I take just for me and to find healing, calm and my zen place," she said. "What I would like people to take away is the idea that I became a photographer to change the world. I want people to realize they can all make a difference, and they can all live a life where they want to make the world a better place, to matter and
to make a difference."
"Stranger in a Strange Land" is the first presentation of the 2019-20 season for SPA's Nat Geo Live! series. Upcoming shows include "Spinosaurus: Lost Giant of the Cretaceous" with paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim in January and "The Search For Life Beyond Earth" with planetary scientist and astrobiologist Kevin Hand in April.
"Stranger in a Strange Land" takes place at 8 p.m. October 15 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For information, call 713-227-4772 or visit spahouston.org. $29 - $49.